Review – Strange Interlude, National Theatre

Monday 3 June 2013

imageWhat are the chances?

You wait an eternity for an infidelity tragi-comedy in which the audience are party to the characters’ innermost thoughts and then you are afforded two in a row.

Just days after visiting Passion Play, where actors play the two main characters’ alter egos, comes Eugene O’Neill‘s 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winner Strange Interlude in which every character makes asides to the audience revealing what they’re really thinking. It’s the Shakespearean device by way of TV’s Peep Show.

Andrew had chickened out of this one on the grounds of life being too short but Phil gamely picked up the cudgel or something and as he occasionally has thoughts in his heads too, has been inspired to go with the zeitgeist and opening up the peculiar workings of his own psyche.

Dreading it frankly. Sounds so very, very long. Why on earth did I book? First preview though, perhaps it won’t be ready and they’ll cancel it.

Strange Interlude has a start time at the National of 6.30 pm. What time did they think it was going to finish? It originally ran at about five hours with a dinner break. Eek.

Do you have to bunk off work early if you’re not near the National? If you’re coming from home will you have to miss Pointless?

If you don’t know this play, the less you know about the workings of its plot (and it’s generously plottier than most plays) the better. You’ll probably enjoy it much more.

The critics will give too much away.

Anyhoo, here’s the basic set up. Nina Leeds (Anne-Marie Duff) is devastated when her handsome adored fiancé Gordon is killed in World War I. She’s neurotic and nuttier than the KP Christmas party. She makes up for never getting it on with Gordon by working at a hospital and making herself readily available to all. Yet Gordon’s spirit still permeates everything. She’s finding it hard to move on.

Someone call Brian Blessed to bellow in her ear “Gordon’s NOT alive!”

Despite this everyone loves Nina, there’s a trio of potential suitors waiting to step into Gordon’s shoes: a novelist Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards freshly released from This House) who’s so mother-obsessed his umbilical cord has been replaced by apron strings, a doctor Edmund Darrell (bona fide American and Mad Men actor Darren Pettie) and an amiable fool (whose diverting wardrobe eccentricities includes tucking his jumper into his waistband and his trousers into his socks), Sam Evans (Jason Watkins).

Sam’s suits by One Man, Two Guvnors‘ Francis Henshall? Hair by Charlie Drake?

That’s all you need to know if you’re to relish the unfolding melodrama as much as we did. What follows involves an unwanted child, a wanted child, potentially inherited insanity, eugenics, calculated deception, guilt, self-sacrifice and unrequited and requited love.

It’s a perfect soap opera storyline.

You can’t take your eyes off Duff as the charismatically wan centrepiece of the slightly bonkers proceedings despite strong competition from Sam’s sartorial choices and the other leads who don’t give up without a fight. Watkins is engaging throughout, his unlikely transition from geek to successful businessman is strangely persuasive and Pettie spars deliciously with Edwards. The latter is brilliantly funny; finickity priggishness has never been so appealing. Edwards is now in the wretched position of being officially rubber-stamped “Whinger-Approved”. His inner arguments with himself are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Did O’Neill inspire Gollum too?

Soutra Gilmour‘s sets start off all Arts and Crafty then revolve to reveal other scenes before taking off in an entirely surprising different direction an hour before the final curtain. The boat went down very well for some reason.

It’s a long time since we’ve heard a set applauded. Can’t ever remember it at the National.

Time has to be spanned rather discombobulatingly. Characters are aged down and up, some less convincingly than others.

Why does Sam’s mother (Geraldine Alexander) look the same age as her son?

But Simon Godwin‘s* production is remarkably entertaining and absorbing, despite finding loads of comedy among the sometimes over-ripe dialogue it ultimately still manages to be moving. It doesn’t feel like 3 hours 25 minutes. Cuts have been made.

The front of house staff were spot on with the timing. And this at the first preview. How did they do that? Most unlike the National.

Some characters might easily have come across unsympathetically. There’s a strange mix of selfishness and selflessness, especially in Nina’s character, is she acting for her own good or in her own peculiar way the good of her family?

Mmmm. 4 or 5?  Was it just because expectations were so low? Should it be marked down for balloons (Phil’s theatrical bête noire) making an appearance? Mustn’t blame the balloons, no sign of them as a metaphor. 4 or 5? 4 or 5?

It just shows you never can tell can you? Though there’s no pleasing everyone.

And, ok, our “wait an eternity for an infidelity tragi-comedy where the audience are party to the characters’ inner thoughts” isn’t strictly true. The Whingers would just like to see a West End revival of Gypsy.


*Phil was accompanied by his friend Helen who once worked at the same publisher as an editor called David Godwin (now a literary agent) and the father of Strange Interlude‘s director. She remembers a two-year-old Simon coming into the office on one occasion and sitting on the floor beside her playing with his toys. Nice to see the National giving him a much bigger toy to play with but not so nice to be reminded that youth is not on our side.

There are a couple of film versions. One featured Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in 1932. But, to help you get the gist, here’s Groucho Marx parodying Strange Interlude in the 1930 Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers.




9 Responses to “Review – Strange Interlude, National Theatre”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    MY GOD five glasses of wine is a START for what you would need to get through this turkey! (Not that you hadn’t noticed my difference of opinion.)

  2. James Chambers Says:

    Heaven forfend – surely the above review is by an escapee from the local home for the bewildered and was not penned by one of our own fair Whingers? My friend and I left at the interval and went to sit by the Thames, necking neat whiskey in a vain attempt to rid ourselves of the memory of the previous 90 minutes in the Lyttelton. Friend said it was the most tedious thing he had ever seen at the National – but then, he didn’t get to see Fram…

    • Chris Says:

      Admittedly the first half was a little slow. But this made the second half all the better – the comedy, drama and plot turns came right to the fore. And the Act I disappeared into the depths of the Lyttelton to reveal three jaw-dropping set changes – the best of which was a boat floating in to great applause. This play is like settling down to a long old Hollywood movie – classic entertanment.

  3. 1234chainsaw Says:

    I’d have to agree with the more negative side here. Some of the dialogue is very good and funny (but much is just such pulp), but most of that is utterly spoiled by its clunky integration with the unnecessarily extensive soliloquy. I also found much of the acting either more flat than we were entitled to expect (Duff, Edwards) or unconvincing (Pettie), which didn’t help with the cardboardy characters. The best act was the one right after the interval, raising our hopes, but then it was downhill again. It’s hard to believe that the script came from the same hand as Long Day’s Journey into Night.

  4. johnmmorrison7 Says:

    I walked out at the interval but Phil stayed right to the end! This ain’t what usually happens. Great acting but the play is just TERRIBLE.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Good Lord it’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg all over again..
      Didn’t see the boat getting the biggest round of the night then?

  5. Boz Says:

    Is the play’s title a self-deprecating witticism on Nick’s time as artistic director..?

  6. jacque Says:

    oh dear have booked for friday am not excited

  7. Zack Polanski Says:

    I think you’re spot on. My friend left at the interval too – it really is a slow set up but I think it’s really worth it as the second act is just actually quite brilliant theatre.

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